May 29, 2016 After spending a short week in Colorado and celebrating my birthday with our friends Robin and Jeremy of Live, Breathe, Move we headed off to a new state and a new National Park: Badlands National Park in South Dakota. I’m not sure what I was expecting. I’d seen pictures of the bare hills and hoodoos that the Park is famous for, so I think my brain was prepped for dry desert (and indeed a lot of terrain inside the Park looks bare and unforgiving). But we arrived in late May as spring was heading toward summer and the prairies surrounding the Park were lush and green, flowers were blooming, ponds and low spots were filled with water and full of migratory birds, and baby animals were everywhere.
The most dramatic scenery in Badlands NP is found along Badlands Loop Road. We were camped just outside the Pinnacles entrance to the Park and began our visit with a drive from there to the Ben Reifel Visitor’s Center along the Loop Road, coming back to the Pinnacles entrance via Sage Creek Rim Road. Bison, prairie dogs and bighorn sheep are all easily seen from the road. I snapped the slightly blurry bighorn below from my window as we were passing by in the car. I wish there had been a place to pull over for a better shot, but there was no shoulder and we refuse to be “those people” who cause traffic jams in order to snap a pic. There are a couple of big prairie dog “towns” in the Park and they’re great entertainment! It’s like a giant whack-a-mole game board that’s endlessly busy. Also, it’s one of the few places outside Florida where I’ve seen burrowing owls! I love these little ground dwelling owls and it’s easy to miss them in a sea of prairie dogs. Take your time scanning and I’ll bet you can see them too. And seeing a bison up close is an awe-inspiring thing. We sat (in the car!) at a stop sign just 10 feet from a group as they tried to scratch the remains of their shaggy winter coats off on a road-side sign. We were close enough to stare into their gorgeous eyes and see how massive their horns really are. They always look at you like they’d just as soon squash you as not. They’re not scary animals but I have no idea why anybody would think they’re tame enough to try to snap a selfie with. To me they put the “wild” in Wild West and they definitely have my respect.
We went back to the Park on subsequent days and explored a few dirt roads nearby as well. After spending the winter in the desert southwest I wasn’t prepared for all this lushness!
For all the beauty of the Park and all the things to do there, I have to admit that it was sometimes hard to drag ourselves away from one of the most spectacular campsites we have ever had. The Buffalo National Grassland is adjacent to the Park and there is free dispersed camping there. We parked with our door literally 10′ away from a cliff overlooking the edge of the badlands. Not only did it make for spectacular views, but cliff swallows buzzed by right at eye level, ravens came by to check us out, and vultures rode the thermals, whizzing right by our windows.
It was easy to just sit on the cliff edge for hours, listening to the ceaseless wind and watching the clouds and the waving prairie grass.
We did manage to drag ourselves away for a fascinating tour at the nearby Minuteman Missile National Historic Site. The tour was mainly Eric’s idea and I’ll admit that I didn’t expect it to be as enjoyable and fascinating as it was. During the cold war our tour guide, now retired and volunteering for the Park Service, was actively stationed at one of the 15 missile launch control facilities on the prairie, each of which could launch 10 nuclear missiles. He was able to give us a first-hand account of what it was like to spend long hours locked in the control room, of the boredom they experienced most of the time, and of the fear he experienced when an equipment malfunction led the Soviets to believe that U.S. missiles had been launched. The Soviets were gearing up to launch their own missiles (which put U.S. silos on high alert and actually began the procedures for a counter-strike) when one of their own missile operators convinced his superior officers that the computer had actually malfunctioned. Whew! The Minuteman Missile NHS also includes a visitor’s center and a preserved missile in its silo. Definitely spend some time exploring these sites if you’re in the area.
Badlands NP and the Buffalo National Grassland are definitely on our list of places to return to. I’d like to come back at different times of the year to see how the prairie changes and whether or not the wind ever stops blowing. While writing this post I tried to think of just what made our visit so special; after all, we’ve camped in some spectacular spots and have visited so many beautiful Parks. It has something to do with how open and expansive the terrain is – something that we’ve both loved about being out west. But unlike the desert southwest, the prairie was so green and inviting, punctuated by sparkling blue ponds and spots of wildflower color. Fierce gray rainclouds against the yellow-green of the grass was a feast for the eyes, as were the rainbows that came after. The great vistas, the wildlife, the movement of the wind through the grass – it all combined to perfection for me. I spent a lot of time with a big ol’ grin on my face, watching the grass wave.
TIPS FOR YOUR BADLANDS NATIONAL PARK EXPERIENCE:
- The Sage Creek Rim Road is a good bet for seeing bison and other wildlife.
- Do not feed or approach prairie dogs! They are adorable but they carry the plaque. Yes, the plague.
- When you’re near a Prairie Dog town, keep your eyes open for burrowing owls. They’re about the same size as a prairie dog and also dig burrows and live underground (there’s a photo of one below). It’s easy to miss them if you don’t know they’re there!
MUST-SEE & DO LIST:
- The Minuteman Missile Historic Site tour is really interesting.
- Spend at least an hour wandering the Wall Drug complex in town. It’s a not-to-be missed kitsch spectacle.
- If you don’t see bison along the Loop Road, try Sage Creek Rim Road. We saw dozens of these awesome animals.